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Sticks and Stones: Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio (1988) in review

By Evelio Zavala

Picture: Universal Pictures

“Sticks and stones can break your bones but words cause permanent damage!” …and yet they keep coming back for more.

Based on Eric Bogosian’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-nominated play of the same name (who is also a co-writer), Talk Radio follows Barry Champlain (also played by Bogosian) as his talk radio show “Night Talk” is about to go nationwide. The whole country will be listening, and Champlain’s show is centered around the host himself taking callers and debating controversial issues. Well, not really debating but more turning their own logic against any caller, be it fan or begrudged hater. It doesn’t matter, though, since they still fuel the show. Numbers are high enough for the show to inevitably be heard all over America. The invisible audience, unseen and only heard—but never listened to.

In fact, you begin to ask yourself how could anybody like, or even listen to Barry Champlain mocking, berating, and sometimes openly expressing hostility towards his most dedicated followers? Well, the answer becomes as simple as the question: they (anybody with ears) can’t get enough of him. His fans love hearing him tear into ring-wing listeners (until Barry turns the tables on them), and his haters, like a young woman attending the same basketball game as Barry, who sardonically laughs and smiles at shaming and throwing her drink at him, with no remorse. Love him or hate him, you simply can’t get enough of Barry Champlain!

It’s through Stone’s assured direction with this story that we follow Champlain through the ugly truth—Barry is a self-destructing, attention-seeking addict who doesn’t care about the well-being of others. Not his friends, not his co-workers, or his estranged ex-wife, who tries to plead to his humanity, posing as a phony caller, under the alias “Cheryl Ann” that the pair know intimately, and he savagely tears into her, claiming he’s having the time of his life—how he’s not some “suburban zombie” and has lots of women chasing him. Barry pushes everyone who wants to get close to him away, further spiraling down his own self-destructing. All he’s left with are his listeners.

But all of this is just an act. Barry may not see it right away, but his whole show is almost someone purposely being a despicable human being, like a desperately bad liar hoping for someone to believe him. Heck, how much more tongue-in-cheek can you get without acknowledging the choice for Barry’s theme being “Bad to the Bone” George Thorogood & The Destroyers? The only person not in on this is Barry.

He’s gone under the pretense that his show provides an important outlet to talk about important issues, but when he asks his listeners why they love the show, the answers are fairly superficial and lack any real impact on their lives. Kent, a longtime listener, drops by at the station after Barry sarcastically invites him on the show and does show up at the studio downtown. Barry asks Kent if any of the topics discussed at the show bother Kent, as often some of Barry’s most vitriolic listeners don’t hesitate to tell him. Kent replies “no,” because it’s “just a show.”

It isn’t until the film’s final speech where Barry openly condemns himself and his audience for enjoying all that's wrong in this world. “Everything’s screwed up,” Barry laments, “and you like it that way don’t you? You’re fascinated by the gory details… You’re happiest when others are in pain.”

It’s this scene where Bogosian truly gives it his all because these things are on his mind, as well as Barry’s. We’ve come to watch a man tell it like it is, but we fail to ever listen to him. As evidenced where the scene dollies around the set, but Barry stays still—heck, the lighting on him never changes despite the environment and lack of motivated lighting supporting this decision. But it’s Stone’s way of showing that change won’t come about, despite all of Barry’s sincerity.

After all, when Barry breaks free from it, he attempts to see what his callers think. Nobody takes it seriously. They think he’s just being funny. It is, after all, just a show. Callers still bother him with irrelevant details of life and what’s wrong with America, the sole purpose of “Night Talk” to create a discourse on what issues deserve to be heard, and we end his show with nearly thirty seconds of dead air. Barry has nothing to say, because what good would it do?

His final lines ring true in 1988 as they do now: “I guess we’re stuck with each other.” For all his talk, everything ever said on these programs is just dead air. It’s, as it always has been, just entertainment. We love watching Barry, as much as we love hearing him, as he just digs his own grave further and further into the ground.

Talk Radio tells one man’s struggle with the world through the voices of those who have nothing better to add than say they just love hearing him talk. It is about not being heard, and pushing those away who are willing to listen. It’s about how we communicate, and yet even with a direct line to someone, we’re just as far from them even if we were in the same room, just talking. The world will be angry and laughing with, or at, Barry, whether that was his intention or not.


About the writer Evelio Zavala is an aspiring filmmaker, writer, editor, and playwright. An avid reader, fellow film aficionado, D&D enthusiast, and podcast junkie. He lives in Chicago with his two cats. His one regret in life is he wasn’t born rich. He is studying Media Arts at Chicago State University. Letterboxd: Twitter: @EvelioandZgroup Instagram: @EvelioandZgroup

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